A WIN! A WIN! A second win in the Big Ten! Forget that Indiana is the worst team in the Big Ten. Michigan State can safely say they are better than another big ten team!
The Spartans found a way to win in a game where their defense under performed and their offense struggled. Still they pulled it out behind an eventually gutsy level of play by Katin Houser and big days from Maliq Carr and Montore Foster. This win wasn’t all pretty but it is a win and that will help the sour taste this season is destined to leave in the mouths of fans.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Indiana is not very good. Yes, they have been in a lot of games they have lost by a small margin. Yes, last week they gained over 500 yards against a not very good Illinois. Still, the team is simply not great. This was the last winnable game for the Spartans and an opportunity for young guys to show they are emerging into talents that can lead a resurgence next year. This means that the Spartans might look better than some of their grades, because of their opponents limited capabilities.
The offense started better than they have essentially all year. The opening drive down the field was balanced between run and pass and resulted in a touchdown. It wasn’t flawless, but that almost made it better. It showed MSU is able to have a standard drive that turns into a touchdown (rather than have to do everything perfectly). It also more than likely showed Indiana is simply not very good at defense.
The use of Maliq Carr on the drive as well as mixing in Mangham and Carter gave a glimpse of what a healthier offense might have done in some of the games this year.
Early on, Jay Johnson clearly prioritized short, easy passes for Katin Houser. Except for the short touchdown pass to Maliq Carr, each pass in the early going was a screen or a swing pass to a running back. This is simple yet effective play calling. It’s also the type of play calling that helps young QBs gain confidence. The positive is this is happening in the game. The negative is it took till the second to last game of the season for an offensive coordinator to deploy this strategy.
The third possession for the Spartan offense saw the wheels come off a bit. The opening downs were a stuffed run up the middle (the loss of center Nick Semac showed up there), a bad pass by Katin Houser to a wide open receiver down the middle and then a badly overthrown pass to Tyrell Henry that drew a pass interference. Then MSU had a hold on a big run that made it 1st and 20. From there they stalled and ended in a long badly thrown interception by Katin Houser. The result was the classic “well, that’s about as good as a punt” but it’s still a badly thrown interception.
To Houser’s credit, the young QB came out more efficient the next few possessions for the Spartans before a big drive was stopped on a failed 4th down conversion. A gutsy call that did not work out. On the next possession the offense showed a spark of life that culminated in a Montore Foster one handed grab that turned into an improbable touchdown run.
The opening drive of the second half ended in futility with a failed 3rd and 1 conversion.
In a rare turn of luck, Katin Houser’s second interception of the game was immediately fumbled back to the Spartans. The offense still fizzled and turned the ball over on downs.
After a half of little to no production, the offense took the field with 4 minutes left and down 4 points. The next two and a half minutes was the best offensive series of Katin Houser’s young career. The redshirt freshman looked in control the entire drive. He completed a huge fourth and three with a pass to Maliq Carr. He tucked the ball and ran for a huge gain to get deep into Hoosier territory. On the touchdown play, he scrambled to buy time before finding Maliq Carr in a tight window down field.
It was a glimpse of a QB this team could rally around next year.
The offense pulled this game out and showed some moxie. Still, throughout the game they played into futility too many times to get a great grade.
Offense Grade: B+
The defense forced two relatively fast punts on the first two possessions for Indiana. The Spartans were closing on the QB and looked mostly in the right positions. The concern was some of the receivers looked open and the incompletions were very poorly thrown passes by Indiana’s QB.
When Indiana’s defense found way to stuff (and intercept) the Spartan’s offense it sparked their offense to roll down the field for a touchdown. The Michigan State defense has shown fight at points this year, but in this game consistently look like they are hoping Indiana will stop itself.
The defense in the first half had essentially two modes: Stop Indiana cold or let them roll. There wasn’t much in between. The defensive stand at the end of the first half was particularly poor and almost let Indiana tack on some points.
The defense continued its poor play at the start of the second half. Indiana went the length of the field in less than 5 minutes and walked in a touchdown.
On the second defensive stand of the second half Indiana once again stopped itself. A wild snap on first down sparked a series of plays that pushed the Hoosiers back to punting from their own half yard line.
Michigan State’s defense then played a bend don’t break approach for a few series. Instead of stuffing Indiana on their own goal line (after a punt was downed on the 2-yard line), they let the Hoosiers get out near mid field. They did stop Indiana on that drive but they missed a big opportunity there.
By late in the fourth quarter the defense embodied the Spartan season. They played tough in some situations, they got run over at others. And most damningly with the game on the line and a 17-14 lead, they let Indiana roll down the field for a go-ahead touchdown.
Even after the offense put them up 24-21 and left only 90 seconds on the clock, the defense could do little to create stops. They allowed Indiana to get in field goal range - and then convert a fourth and 1 to stay in field goal range. The missed field goal gave MSU the win, but the defense did nothing to earn that.
Defense Grade: C+
The first punt of the game went joyously run of the mill. No one lined up offside and the punt was downed on Indiana’s 11 yard line. That’s how this is supposed to work.
After the second touchdown for the Spartans the kick off unit almost spoiled the good feelings. Indiana’s returner was stopped by a shoestring tackle that otherwise would have been a touchdown run back. The eventual coverage technically worked, but watching that play exposed a coverage unit that looked out of position and got lucky.
The end of half missed field goal by Indiana looked like it might have been tipped by the Spartans.
Late in the third quarter the punt unit once again displayed more than competence. They downed a well covered kick on the Hoosier’s 2 yard line. Great field position in a tight game.
Letting a fake punt go for a first down at the end of the third quarter was a huge let down. Before that the special teams had mostly done a solid to above average job. That mistake was deflating.
On the positive, Jonathan Kim connecting on a 43-yard field goal was a big lift. It looked good enough to immediately serve as a reminder that Barnett chose not to kick a field goal in the first half that resulted in a failed fourth down conversion.
In the end the field goal was the difference. The field position the punt unit kept enforcing on Indiana was extremely important. Overall, the unit avoided any major misstep. That is a much improved performance.
Special Teams Grade: A-
Going for it on 4th and short in the second quarter fit with the Harlon Barnett approach since he took over. Namely, be aggressive. Normally this is a good thing. MSU has been in games against offenses it was struggling to keep up with, and going for a touchdown felt essential. In a much more evenly matched competition against Indiana, the failure to get any points (i.e. take a field goal) seemed like a mistake.
Watching Jay Johnson call another short yardage shotgun snap that failed to convert at the start of the second half made me yearn for the post season announcement that he will be fired. It’s not that the formation truly cannot convert third downs, it’s the play designs using them. There is no mystery. Defenses don’t respect a potential pass and the blocking scheme is designed for a faster hitting play (example: Indiana’s defender getting from the edge schematically - read intentionally - unblocked to the middle of the backfield before the running back could hit the line).
Speaking of coordinators, Scottie Hazelton had a bad day. Hazelton redeemed himself a lot this year. A young set of defensive backs and some emerging players helped stabilize a unit that looked in free fall last year. Even as the rest of the team crumbled, the defense had some good outings this year.
Blame it on the injuries, or just the end of season lack of will, but Hazelton’s game plan did almost nothing against Indiana. Unless Indiana stopped themselves (their QB had stretches of very bad throws), they mostly had their way with the Spartan defense. It wasn’t clear what the approach was to disrupt Indiana. Regardless, largely it didn’t work.
The final series of the game highlighted the first half decision to go for it on 4th down rather than go for the field goal. If MSU was up by two field goals at the end, the scenario for Maryland would have been much different. In the end, Michigan State was able to win, but that early mist step made it much more dramatic than it needed to be.
Coaching Grade: C+
Winning covers a lot of sins. Considering how much of a struggle this season has been, the Spartans will take a win any way they can get it. And getting it through a late game drive by their maligned offense was fantastic.
The final drive showed a determined QB supported by two receivers having big games. Those were elements missing from almost every game this year.
Still the positive outcome does not excuse the all too often futile offense. Even with all the yards that Montore Foster and Maliq Carr racked up, there were stretches where MSU moved the ball with minimal impact. On top of that, Katin Houser’s second interception was essentially negated by Indiana turning the ball over immediately (on the same play!) to the Spartans.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Spartans looked weak. Injuries have decimated even their young core of future difference makers and it showed on the field. Indiana was in position to tie or win this game in the end because the defense could not by a stop when it mattered.
The coaching continued to be suspect and make everyone thrilled this will be the next to last appearance of this coaching crew.
Still, the game was a win. So that bumps this grade up a bit.
Overall Grade: B+